That information is no longer classified

Scholars join up as veil of secrecy lifts, outgoing MoD chief scientific adviser tells Elizabeth Gibney

June 14, 2012

The number of university academics collaborating with the Ministry of Defence on research is increasing and is set to rise further, the MoD's outgoing chief scientific adviser has said.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Mark Welland, also head of the Nanoscale Science Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, said the rise was being enabled by a shift in the MoD's culture of secrecy.

"It's important to us because academics largely don't want to go through the process of doing classified work because it's restrictive," he said.

Sir Mark has instigated a policy that will be taken forward as part of the National Security through Technology White Paper, published in February.

It calls for the "obstacle" of security classification to be reduced by extracting the core science from projects and passing it to academia as well as small businesses.

"In the past, if you were designing a car and part of the steering wheel was classified, we probably would classify the whole car as top secret. But you need to be clear about what is fundamentally secret and what is not," he said.

In 2010, just 10 to 15 per cent of applications to the Centre for Defence Enterprise - a part of the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory that specialises in launching rapid-response calls for research - came from academia.

But interest is rising, and across social science and healthcare as well as in the more traditional defence fields, Sir Mark said.

Last year, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory also launched an open PhD scheme for up to 100 students, while applications to the centre increased from 300 in 2008-09 to more than 1,000 in 2010-11.

"It's hugely oversubscribed, as is the PhD programme," Sir Mark said.

A specialist team has also been set up at the MoD to develop a more structured approach to relationships with academia.

The policy of collaboration has been driven in part by significant cuts to the MoD's budget, Sir Mark explained. Science and technology spending has fallen from about £800 million to £430 million over the past 10 years.

"We carried out a review to ensure we had an efficient, well-managed and organised system and also looked for much more collaboration to get more leverage from the reduced money that we did have," he said.

The nanoscientist added that he hoped such budgetary issues would be resolved by a provision in the White Paper that sets the MoD a minimum spend on science and technology of 1.2 per cent of its total budget. Regardless, the process of opening up defence research will continue, he said.

The ministry has appointed Vernon Gibson, chief scientist at the petrochemical giant BP and visiting professor of chemistry at Imperial College London, as Sir Mark's replacement as chief scientific adviser.

Professor Gibson will take over on 2 July while Professor Welland will return to working full time at Cambridge.

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